The capital of Sicily is also the island's largest city. It's crowded, loud, and very unkempt in most areas, and driving in the city can take 10 years off your life. But outstanding artistic and architectural gems, such as the Norman Palace, the Palatine Chapel, and the Quattro Canti, convey the elegance and grandeur that once reigned here and show how Sicily was a crossroads for many different cultures. The three historical markets -- Capo, Vucciria, and Ballarò -- give you an inside peek at everyday life in the city. Not too distant from the center of Sicily you can have sweeping views of the city from Monte Pellegrino, or head to the beach in Mondello. A short distance away lies Monreale, with its exquisite cathedral adorned with some of the best mosaics in the western world.
The Arabs called the area Val di Mazara, and it is emphatically wine, salt, and olive country. The world famous Alcamo wine is produced in and around the town of Alcamo, and the equally famous sweet Marsala wine is made in and around the city of the same name. The prized olives grown in the area are used to make some of the best olive oils in the world, and sea salt is still harvested as it was in Carthaginian times using centuries-old windmills. The waters along the coast are crystalline and have either rocky (Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro) or sandy (San Vito Lo Capo) shores, and the town of Mazara del Vallo is one of the fishing capitals of Italy. And, yes, the region does have its fair share of history and monuments as well: The Doric temple and Greek Theater of Segesta, the ruins of Selinunte, and the Carthaginian stronghold of Motya, to name just a few.
This is about as close as you'll ever get to Sicily as it once was, when back in the times of The Leopard in the mid-1800s (pre-Unification in 1860) the economy of the island was based on agriculture. The rolling hills with wheat fields, the endless fruit orchards, and citrus groves are still here, along with the centuries-old stone farmhouses and castles on top of isolated hills. The ones in Mussomeli and Caccamo are exceptional, while the one in Enna, the highest provincial capital in Italy, commands views over the entire island. Sutera, at the base of a lone hill, is picturesque. The Madonie Mountains are the highest on the island and feel more Alpine than Mediterranean.
The Southern Coast
The southern coast, known for fishing and agriculture, is an area that has some of the most stunning landscapes on the island. As you wind your way down the coastal road you'll encounter vineyards, citrus orchards, wheat fields, and the odd sheepherder or two who sees nothing wrong with leading his flocks along state roads. As can be expected, the beaches are sandy and go on forever, with the one extraordinary exception of the Scala dei Turchi, a white, rippled limestone and clay cliff carved by the elements. History surely left its mark here, exemplified by the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento and in other Greek colonies such as Eraclea Minoa and Gela, though, sadly, the latter is in poor condition. Punctuating the hilltops and coastlines are castles, such as the ones in Caltabellotta and Falconara, near Butera.
This verdant area with lush forests carpeting the Nebrodi mountains and its hidden villages gives you the feeling that time has stopped, but for all the sleepiness there is one town that's always hopping: The incomparable Taormina, once the playground of the jet set. It's also the gateway to the island (Messina) and was the place where the first Greeks colonized Sicily (Naxos).
Overshadowing the eastern areas and visible from as far away as Erice and Calabria on the mainland, Europe's highest (over 3,000m/9,843 ft.) and most active volcano has determined the history, architecture, and agriculture of its environs for centuries, if not millennia: The cooled lava has been used to rebuild many of the cities after earthquakes, and the lava-rich soil produces the blood-red oranges that are unique to this part of the island. Thick vegetation surrounds the foothills, creating a microclimate of flora not seen anywhere else in Sicily. Treks up to the craters are possible, depending on weather and volcanic activity; dress warmly, even in summer. In 2019, Etna erupted, creating an earthquake in Catania that killed 4 people. Check safety warnings before venturing out for a tour of its flanks.
The second-largest city in Sicily is more industrialized than Palermo; some say that its proximity to the mainland is the reason. There's no denying that Catania is loud and brash. Old Catania still lives on in places such as the daily fish market. Its architecture is certainly homogeneous: Literally forced to rebuild from the ground up after a devastating earthquake in 1693, it developed its own twist on the baroque, the Late Sicilian Baroque, which defines not only Catania but all of southeastern Sicily. The Roman Amphitheater and Odeon are vestiges of Roman domination, but it's the harmonious style of the buildings post-earthquake that define the city. Worth visiting also are Sant'Alfio, to see the oldest tree in continental Europe, and Bronte, to taste the delectable pistachios.
This area is different from the rest of the island, and what has come to be known as "Ragusashire" is a territory of plateaus where the sheep and cows graze on its green pastures, even in summer, so it's no wonder it has become the dairy capital of Sicily. Delicacies like the sharp caciocavallo or smoked ragusano have earned government DOP status (Denomination of Protected Origin) to safeguard the quality and the heritage of the products. Chocolate in Modica is still made artisanally; a typical variety is chocolate with chili pepper. Wines and other delights are typical of the area; the city of Avola is known for its wine and almonds. In this area the mighty Syracuse, the rival of the Greek capital, Athens, developed and prospered, and the ruins are a testament to its former greatness; the Greek Theater was considered the most prominent cultural venue in Greater Greece. The southeast is also the capital of the Sicilian Baroque style, and the Val di Noto has been granted Unesco World Heritage status for its unique post-seismic architecture.
Even an island can have its own islands. Mostly of volcanic origin, they are the hotspots to visit during the summer, owing to their sparkling blue or green seas and uncontaminated beaches. They are a nature-lover's paradise, with protected marine reserves (Ustica) and designated beaches for the sea turtles to lay their eggs (Lampedusa), luring visitors like the call of a siren. The earliest traces of Sicilian history are found on the Aeolian and Egadi islands, while Pantelleria, with a feel more African than Italian, offers culinary delights such as capers and the sweet Passito wine.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.